No.13 Summer 2017
The origins of the criminal Assad dynasty
- Written by Omar Hassan
Bashar, you’re a liar
To hell with you and your speech [promising reforms]
Freedom is very near
Time to go, o Bashar
O Maher [Bashar’s brother] you’re a coward
And an agent of the Americans
The Syrian people will not be humiliated,
Time to go, o Bashar”
– Yalla Irhal Ya Bashar (Time to go, Bashar) written by the late Ibrahim Qashoush, who was brutally murdered at the hands of the regime on 4 July 2011.
The Syrian revolution has been the most divisive issue on the international left in decades. Support for similar uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere was near unanimous, but many baulked at showing solidarity with the movements in Libya and Syria. Some argue that along with Iran, the Syrian regime is the last holdout against US imperialism in the region, and should be championed on that basis. Others initially supported popular demands for democratic and economic reform, yet now insist on defending the regime as a necessary, albeit imperfect, anti-imperialist counterweight to the Americans.
This has led many on the left to adopt positions that deny the agency and revolutionary potential of the Syrian people, and has led many to articulate deeply Islamophobic arguments to discredit the anti-Assad forces on the ground.
The purpose of this article is not to explain why this is a fundamental betrayal of the most basic premise of the left, which is to support struggles of workers and the oppressed for economic and political rights. That has been done elsewhere, most notably in the outstanding book by Leila Al-Shami and Robin Yassin-Kassab, Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War.
Rather, I seek here merely to re-establish some basic facts about the Syrian Ba’ath regime, particularly focusing on its most “radical” period. I argue that the Ba’ath were never socialist and that Hafez al-Assad was utterly uninterested in the cause of Arabism, socialism, or Palestinian liberation. To do this I will explore the conditions of his rise to power and the counter-revolutionary nature of his subsequent intervention in the Lebanese civil war.
Origins of the Syrian state
The state known as Syria is a modern and relatively unstable phenomenon. Its historic roots can be traced to the administrative apparatus required to funnel taxes from the area to the Ottoman empire, which was then taken over and modified by the French. Far from being the result of a struggle for national unity and independence, the Syrian state emerged as a product of its precise opposite – colonial rule and geographic division. The region known as Greater Syria during the Ottoman empire had previously included modern day Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Palestine and the southern part of Turkey. In creating the modern state of Syria, the French took no heed of pre-existing networks of tribal, economic and religious loyalties. As a result the Syrian state faced enormous difficulties in developing a truly national identity.
If the Sykes-Picot agreement had created a mere shell of a nation in Syria, decades of divide and rule by the French kept it that way. The broad spectrum of religious, ethnic and cultural groups competing for influence and protection threatened to pull the newly born state apart. This was facilitated by the French, who instituted self-rule for provinces such as Jabal al-Druze (Druze Mountains) and Latakia (a mostly Allawite province) which were dominated by respective minority groups. These protectorates were weak, and the local leaderships that emerged were totally dependent on French patronage for their survival. Such divisive colonial strategies served both to entrench the communal identities of the minority religious groupings and to divide them from the majority Sunni communities who were hostile to the French and saw these alliances as treasonous.
In a final attempt to consolidate their rule the French co-opted sections of the Sunni ruling classes, strengthening the power of traditional notables and thereby creating a weak but important bourgeoisie based in agriculture and land ownership. These landowners in turn used sectarianism to cement their rule. While minorities were relatively safe in their autonomous provinces, the subsequent merger of Alawite and Druze regions into Syria proper in 1936 allowed the Sunni elites free rein. Kurds were denied the use of their language and prohibited from all cultural expression and Alawites were seen as only fit for being servants. The Druze and Christian minorities were only slightly better off. The Sunni elites saw their wealth and power grow exponentially in this period.
Yet the Sunni landowners were unable to institutionalise their dominance. Specifically, they were unable to create a centralised state based in civic institutions which could win the allegiance of the populace. Tribal and regional connections remained of overwhelming significance throughout the pre-Assad period, so that one historian could write: “[W]hen Syria became independent in 1946 she was in many respects a state without being a nation-state, a political entity without being a political community.”
Following World War Two a wave of popular struggles involving students, workers and the poor swept the Middle East. The high point in terms of mass struggle occurred in Iraq, where between 300,000 and one million people marched on May Day in 1959, demanding that the new anti-colonial regime provide social justice and genuine democracy. These movements were characterised by frustration at the social and economic stagnation of semi-feudal Arab societies and anger at the humiliating defeat of the Arab armies by Israel in 1948. Parties of the left were at the heart of these movements. Most important were the Soviet-aligned communist organisations, which grew significantly in size and influence through these years.
These sentiments were strongly concentrated in the newly created layer of public servants; teachers, lawyers, doctors and the officer corps of the military. Often graduates of the first public schools in their respective countries, these effendis were middle class intellectuals; with enough education to know that the Arabs were lagging behind the West, and enough ambition to believe that they possessed the solution. They were able to play a decisive role in countries like Syria, Egypt and Iraq where the social movements were strong enough to destabilise the old systems of government, but the Stalinists – informed by stages theories of social change – refused to take power. Into this vacuum stepped the most powerful and organised section of these new middle classes – the military officers – who moved to usurp the old landowning elites and institute populist-style military regimes. Hafez al-Assad, the man who would rule Syria from 1970 to 2000, was one of them.
In contrast to one of the more idiotic claims of Assadists today, the Ba’ath party that came to power in 1963 was never a socialist party of the working class. Rather it was a party of the educated lower middle class, and a relatively small one at that, with just over 400 members when it came to power in 1963. This layer was deeply hostile to the inherited privilege of the backward Sunni elites, and sought a more equal and meritocratic distribution of power and opportunity. For economic reasons many people of this type found themselves concentrated in the ranks of the Syrian Army, which was open to both minorities and poorer people in a way that the political and economic establishment was not.
An additional factor explaining this trajectory is the nature of the middle classes themselves. Lacking the power of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the middle classes are relatively helpless in the face of the dynamics of the capitalist system. Thus they tend to gravitate towards the state, which becomes for them “the bulwark of national independence, and…the key instrument of political and economic action”. In Syria this process was accelerated by the fact that events since the French withdrawal in 1946 had further strengthened the military; a series of coups in which each incoming leader would expand the military apparatus as a means of strengthening their hand, culminating in the total domination of the military over every other aspect of society. This would also have ramifications for the subsequent battle between the civilian wings of the Ba’ath party and the military clique led by Assad.
The policies of the early Ba’ath reflected the desires of the classes the party represented. They adopted the strategy of populist development, defined as the heavy involvement of the state in the economy, the creation of corporatist institutions to mobilise subaltern classes and the eclectic use of leftist terminology. They nationalised sections of industry, invested heavily in primary infrastructure and sought to industrialise and modernise Syria. Perhaps the most significant of these policies was the compulsory land distribution policies which set maximum limits on land ownership and the subsidised sales of excess land to poor peasantry. Prior to this Syria had suffered under one of the most unequal distributions of land in the Middle East:
By 1950, owners of plots of more than 100 acres constituted less than 1 percent of the agricultural population but held half of the cultivatable land, while 60 percent of the agricultural population owned no land at all. The Ba’ath hoped that reforming this horrific situation would lead to an increase in the productivity of the rural zones, which would combine with state-led urban industrialisation to advance the country as a whole.
These populist policies also helped the Ba’ath to consolidate a base among workers, peasants and the poor. In the early years the government substantially increased wages and provided subsidies on food and basic goods and services. The land reforms massively expanded the class of poor peasants who owed their existence to the centralised price controls managed by the state. Similar things can be said regarding the nationalisation of key industries and the provision of welfare to the working class and the poor. While doing this the Ba’athists could articulate a radical nationalist and even “socialist” rhetoric which appeared to unite the interests of the chafing middle class intelligentsia, the proletariat and the poor. The period between 1963 and 1970 was marked by turmoil within the Ba’ath party, but in the midst of the various intrigues, betrayals and manoeuvres, a leftwards trajectory was apparent.
This culminated with the rule of Salah Jadid, a leader known for his Stalinist sympathies and for his advocacy of militant strategy of a “popular war of liberation” against Israel. Immediately after coming to power in 1966, Jadid introduced a number of radical economic measures. These included the nationalisation of further sections of the economy and the initiation of the Euphrates Dam project, which was projected to be the basis for what Hinnebusch called a “Ba’athist agrarian socialism”. Jadid further restricted the maximum amount of land that could be legally possessed by any individual and by 1970 had nationalised all the excess land. The result of this is shown in Table 1; a massively expanded class of peasants and a dramatic reduction in the numbers and power of the landowning bourgeoisie. Finally, the Ba’athists took the education system in a new and more modern direction, placing private schools under state control, building hundreds of new institutions and emphasising the importance of science and engineering.
Table 1 – Changes in Syrian Class Structure, 1960-1970
Industrial & Commercial Bourgeoisie
Salaried Middle Class
Traditional Petit Bourgeoisie
Source: Longuenesse, 1974 in Hinnebusch 1990; 142
While the popular appeal of these policies was not in question, they were creating bitter opposition. Syria was isolated in the region after the 1967 war as it blamed the defeat of the Arab armies on the “reactionary” Arab monarchies. As a result much needed financial aid from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Libya was withheld. On the domestic front there were also difficulties with economic stagnation, a negative balance of trade and increasing opposition from the capitalists. Landowners rebelled against land reform. Merchants opposed the growing intervention of the state into trade in the cities, and the restrictions placed on their scope for commercial gain. The traditional petty bourgeoisie around the mosques identified Ba’athist secularism as an attack on their privileged social positions, and disliked the methods of secular education. All saw the leading roles in the party played by Alawites, Druze and to a lesser extent Christians as heretical. Bound together through religious and economic networks, these classes found much in common in this period, and formed a united front against the radical policies of the Ba’athists.
Assad’s “corrective movement” beats a retreat
When faced with these challenges, the “radical republic” was forced to make a difficult choice. State managers could either deepen the struggle against the old order by taking increasingly radical measures to confiscate wealth and challenge imperialism, or reconcile themselves with the regional order and cut back on the populist welfare measures. In Syria, Assad’s coup against Jadid in 1970 marked the decisive turning point away from radical populism towards a bureaucratic authoritarianism. This was the starting point for a process of compromise with and adaptation to both the domestic capitalist class and regional imperialist forces.
While the 1973 constitution enshrined socialism as a principle of the new regime, it was immediately apparent that Assad’s policy was to reconcile the government with the growing opposition forces. He came to describe his rise to power as a “corrective movement”, a means of saving Syria from the irresponsible and “extremist” policies introduced by his predecessor. Immediately after taking power Assad sent a clear message to urban elites that he opposed the radically statist policies of his predecessors. His new policies aimed at the incorporation of key sections of the bourgeois establishment, in particular its merchant and commercial wings based in the big cities of Damascus and Aleppo. Though a majority of all investment continued to be channelled via the state, private enterprise was given space to make large profits by trading in high-end consumer goods and fulfilling government contracts. In this way a semi-official division of labour between the private and public sectors was established in Syria: profitable industries and trade for private corporations, while large-scale (and relatively unprofitable) infrastructure and primary industries would be looked after by the state. This was a compromise that benefited both parties, and resulted in a lasting alliance between Assad and the Damascene and Aleppan merchant class.
Yet the process was not simply a reversal of the previous years of economic and political reforms. Assad sought to use his new position of power to facilitate the construction of a broad social base to ensure a stable government. State officials actively cultivated alliances with a new class of super-rich entrepreneurs from the urban centres, creating a “new class” of capitalists. This class relied on personal connections with the regime to gain lucrative state contracts and subsidies, which they could in turn pass on to others. This process created networks of patrimony entirely contingent on personal favours from the regime, what some have called the “military-commercial complex”. Assad could thus sincerely “thank and salute the Chamber of Commerce and merchants of Damascus for their patriotic feelings…and their devotion to the national interest”. Their support was crucial to his survival during the generalised urban revolt led by the Muslim Brotherhood during the late 1970s and culminating in the 27-day siege of Hama in 1982 and the massacre of possibly over 10,000, and remains vital to his son’s hold on power today. 
In the early days of post-colonial expansion the regime could cultivate a bourgeois base of support while simultaneously providing benefits to other classes. It did this in a range of ways pertinent to the needs of particular constituents. To begin with, the regime developed an enormous administrative apparatus staffed by a relatively privileged layer of middle class and white collar workers. Positions in the lower rungs of the bureaucracy were also used by elites to extend favours and strengthen their base. As a result, between 1970 and 1983 the public sector’s contribution to Gross Domestic Product increased by 50 percent, while all other categories remained more or less stable. By 1982 Syria also had 440,000 public servants, not including the police, the military and other assorted security organisations. Politically this produced a situation whereby the lower and higher rungs of the bureaucracy were bound together ideologically and materially in defence of the public sector and therefore to the regime that employed them.
Assad’s government also played a central role in the development of industry proper, a source of employment opportunities and political prestige. Large-scale enterprises were crucial in allowing the regime to take strides forward towards “modernity”, while soaking up significant numbers of unemployed workers. But they also provided political benefits; “the mere installation of a project is a political objective in itself, providing ‘modern’ employment opportunities, disbursing wages and salaries and highlighting the role of the state”. In this period Assad’s government also maintained direct assistance to the poor, primarily in the form of subsidies on domestically produced goods and services. State expenditures were thus used as a means of incorporating a range of social classes into support for the Assad regime. Importantly, however, this incorporation was strictly economic; it did not entail political rights or influence over policy.
The policies described above were not unique to Syria. The policies of the Ba’ath were similar to those of Egypt, Iraq and a whole series of African and Asian post-colonial regimes. As with so many of these states in this period, the Ba’athists were attempting to get the Syrian economy going through import-substitution and state-led investment into large-scale infrastructure. In late-developing economies with a weak bourgeoisie, the state is often the only institution capable of effectively initiating and directing significant economic projects. For a time such policies could achieve economic growth and development, as the sudden increases in investment flowed through the economy in the form of wages, secondary employment, and so on.
States’ managers in this period often adopted socialist rhetoric to describe their statist policies, either as a result of alliances with the Stalinist regimes or as an attempt to gain popularity. And while these reforms were generally progressive in relation to what came before, it is important to assert that they had nothing to do with socialism. Unfortunately much of the left had lost its bearings following the widespread accommodation to Stalinism and the USSR, and did not see things so clearly. Corey Oakley outlines the link between support for the USSR and third world nationalism as follows:
The ascendency of the notion that a state could be defined as socialist based on which countries they aligned themselves with, or whether they had a statised economy, meant that all of a sudden a dizzying array of states could become socialist…
For outright Stalinists, Syria ticked both these boxes – with a state-run economy and strong alliance with the USSR. It was therefore socialist. Trotskyists tended to be more discerning but were not immune to this analysis; at least one group would describe Ba’athist Syria as a workers’ state as late as 1978! The events which followed should clarify why this was an enormous mistake, one which continues to shape attitudes today in disgraceful ways.
A more accurate and useful definition of the Syrian regime – and others like it in the early period – is corporatist. This can be defined as
a system of interest representation in which the constituent units are organised into a limited number of non-competitive, hierarchically ordered and functionally differentiated categories…[that are] granted a deliberate representational monopoly…in exchange for absolving certain controls on their selection of leaders and articulations of demands…
It tended to coincide with an expansionist phase of development immediately following independence from colonial powers. Central to this method of governing is the creation of institutions that seek to formally incorporate significant classes and social groups into the state. Nasser had his Liberation Rally and then the Arab Socialist Union and Assad had a Peasants Union, Workers’ Union, Women’s Union, and more. The purpose of such institutions is to give the state some grounding in the popular classes, while simultaneously reducing the space for independent organisations. Crucially, the “main link established [between the state and] the popular sector is one of control”. This uneasy combination of populism and authoritarianism is a trademark of a certain type of post-colonial regime, of which Ba’athist Syria was an archetypal example.
Yet these populist policies were predicated on economic resources that were both finite and politically constrained. Syria’s annual GDP growth averaged 9 percent from 1970-1979, allowing the state to improve the conditions of all key classes at once. This growth was not to last. Shonky planning meant that most state-led investments failed, plagued by low profit rates, bottlenecks and other difficulties. The flow-on effects of the global downturn in the 1970s further exacerbated these issues. These economic problems were compounded in Syria by a series of geopolitical peculiarities. As a “frontier state” in the Arab-Israeli conflict, Syria had enjoyed large amounts of aid from the Gulf following Assad’s rise to power. This expanded further after the October War in 1973; on average the government received over $600 million per year between 1973 and 1980. Following the 1979 revolution in Iran, and Syria’s subsequent support for Khomeini during the Iran-Iraq War, this aid was largely withdrawn, leaving a gap in the budget only partially filled by Iran. The growing crisis in the USSR only compounded the situation for Syria, reliant as it had been on economic and military supplies from Russia and the Eastern Bloc. All of this combined to produce a severe economic crisis in the early 1980s.
Under these immense pressures, the corporatist system began to unravel. The state responded to a profound fiscal crisis by limiting the growth of the public sector, starting with a four-year freeze on new recruits in 1985. Real declines in the wages of the middle and lower sectors of the administrative apparatus impoverished many of those who maintained their positions. As a result, by the 1990s a whopping 40 percent of state employees earned wages below subsistence level. Other neoliberal reforms contributed to the general lowering of living standards for the poor. Subsidies and welfare provisions were slashed, with those that remained failing to keep up with inflation. As a result the gap between rich and poor has grown dramatically as income redistribution from labour to capital accelerated. Such widespread poverty among public servants began to shake their loyalty to the regime, reflected in small-scale signs of resistance amongst lawyers, doctors and other sections of the salaried intelligentsia. Neoliberalisation accelerated further following Bashar’s ascension to power in 2000. The revolution that began in March 2011 should be understood as a direct product of these developments.
This evolution from populist corporatism to authoritarian neoliberalism is far from peculiar to the Syrian context. The import-substitution model suffered from flaws that affected any number of third world states in the 1970s as the high cost of importing advanced equipment led to untenable state debt and balance of payment imbalances. The state was forced to turn more and more to the revived private sector, and gradually ditch the populist economic policies of the earlier era. In this way economic crises tended to become political. The speed at which this process took place from country to country was mediated by a series of factors, including the capacity of workers and the poor to resist, access to foreign aid, and so on. But the general trajectory of populist-authoritarian states was similar; authoritarian tendencies would become more pronounced as the populist policies receded.
Having said all that, Assad’s Syria was never really known for its “socialist” economy but rather for its anti-imperialist foreign policy. We have seen how Hafez al-Assad sought to distance himself from his more Stalinist predecessors, preferring to collaborate with capitalists and other conservative domestic forces. This pattern was more or less mirrored in the field of Syria’s foreign policy. Far from confronting Zionism and its imperialist allies, Assad sought to build pragmatic alliances with the Gulf States, adopted a defensive posture regarding Israel, and took the disgraceful and historic step of acknowledging its right to exist.
The pre-Assad government played the Palestine card freely and wildly, regularly proclaiming the imminent destruction of Israel and their ambition to turn Syria into the Hanoi of the Middle East. It even managed to force Nasser into renewing an alliance with Syria against his will, with the purpose of organising war against Israel. This war was not to be just any war, it was to be a “people’s war of liberation”, waged by Palestinian militias that the regime was providing with significant funds, weapons and training.
In 1967 the Israelis decided to put an end to this dream, launching a brutally efficient war that resulted in a humiliating defeat for the Arab side. To make matters worse for the Arab leaders, Israel decided to permanently occupy Egypt’s Sinai Desert and Syria’s Golan Heights. The latter was of crucial strategic importance, placing them within striking range of Damascus. Rather than conceding defeat, Jadid sought to radicalise Syria’s foreign policy. He argued that the war was proof that the majority of the Arab regimes were guilty of “rightist” deviations which made them incapable of confronting Israel and the US. The solution was to overthrow the “feudal” systems in places like Saudi Arabia and Jordan and replace them with revolutionary regimes. Of course by this he didn’t intend genuine revolutions but the creation of statist regimes aligned to Moscow. This nuance was lost on the Gulf States whose rulers preferred not to be overthrown, regardless of the outcome. They responded by cutting vital aid transfers and crippling the economic capacity of the Ba’athist government. Jadid also continued to allow the Palestinian militias to use Syrian territory as a launching pad for guerrilla attacks on Israel. This too was costly, as Israel used its military superiority to retaliate with disproportionate violence.
Assad quickly moved to rein in these excesses. His actual rise to power was preceded by a blunt refusal to give air cover to Palestinians fighting against the Jordanian monarchy during the events of Black September. While Jadid was distracted with the task of defending the PLO’s presence in Jordan, Assad seized the opportunity to launch a palace coup he had been preparing for since 1968.
The first major foreign policy decision made by the new regime was to seek a rapprochement with the oil-exporting states of the Gulf. Far from seeing Arab unity as a means of revolutionising the social and political structures inherited from the colonial era, Assad saw it as an immediate necessity to prevent Syria from being isolated politically and militarily. He was also keenly aware of the economic importance of foreign aid, and thus placed great emphasis on renewing his alliances with Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich monarchies. As he would later put it:
Some of my colleagues denounced other countries with great fanaticism. I strongly believed that we should encourage other Arabs to play their part and not be the ones to obstruct a joint Arab effort. Whatever the conflicts between the regimes, the Arabs faced a common danger.
Another major shift occurred on Syria’s stance towards the existence of the Zionist state of Israel. Where Jadid had upheld the “rejectionist” line of the Arab left, Assad indicated his willingness to accept Israel’s right to exist. This took the form of an offer to endorse UN Resolution 242 – which demanded the Arab states accept Israel’s right to exist – in exchange for the full return of the Golan and a meaningless written acknowledgement of Palestinian rights. Israel failed to respond to this offer, forcing Assad to adopt a more confrontational posture to gain further leverage.
Between 1970 and 1973 Syria significantly increased the size and cohesion of its army, hoping to shift the balance of forces in order to negotiate on more equal footing with Israel. This started with the reappointment of a number of right wing officers previously purged by Jadid. The Syrian army also received huge amounts of military aid and training from Russia, a relationship which continues to this day. The extent of the support provided to the Syrian government in this period is enormous; the USSR provided Syria with $183 million worth of its best military hardware in the first six months of 1973 alone, just under US$1 billion in today’s figures. Without this injection of resources Assad could never have launched the October war later that year.
Much has been made of the October War, recorded in the popular consciousness of the Middle East as the first Arab victory against Israel. Linked to this is the perception that Sadat and Assad were fighting for Palestine, determined to enforce a just solution on the stubborn Israelis. The truth is less inspiring. Both Sadat and Assad saw the war as an unfortunate but necessary means of jump-starting stalled peace talks. This goal shaped Sadat’s plans for a limited war, where success would involve capturing just “ten millimetres of land on the east side of the canal”. Assad hoped to ride on Sadat’s coat-tails, pushing the Egyptians into a more profound confrontation to maximise his chances of regaining the Golan in subsequent peace talks. Assad’s determination to push Egypt to adopt more ambitious military objectives was not a product of his deep personal commitment to defeating Israel, but a strategic necessity. 
None of this was apparent at the time, and the war was greeted with immense enthusiasm across the Middle East. Given the catastrophic failure of the Arab armies in 1967, fighting Israel to a stalemate was seen as a victory. Hopes were raised by the manner in which the Arab world seemed to be united in the struggle against Israel. This was most dramatically signified by the use of the oil as a weapon for the first time, in the form of the partial embargo put on sales to the West by the Gulf countries. Reflecting this newfound confidence, a senior Egyptian general boasted that “the world has woken up to the fact that we can move, can fight, and can achieve victory”.
In Syria the state-run media dubbed Assad the “Hero of October” and a newspaper was rebranded to commemorate the war. Coming so soon after his rise to power, Assad benefited greatly from these celebrations which established his legitimacy as an Arab nationalist. Many had clashed with Israel, but Assad was the first to be competent enough to achieve some success. Syria’s emergence as a central player in Middle Eastern politics during and after the war consolidated this newfound popularity. As Sadat took the post-war journey towards a permanent peace with Israel, Assad was free to position himself as the heir to the recently deceased Gamal Abdel Nasser.
This post-war high masked a series of historic compromises and concessions made by the Syrians. The first was the signing of UN resolution 338 which accepted Israel’s right to exist within the pre-1967 borders. Following the war Assad began courting US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, offering to end all hostilities between Israel, Syria and the US in exchange for the return of the Golan Heights. As before the war, that a deal failed to eventuate was less a product of Assad’s militancy than Israeli intransigence.
If the 1973 war suggested that Assad was more interested in stability than justice, his intervention in the Lebanese civil war confirmed it beyond all doubt. Although Assad continued to utilise his trademark anti-Zionist rhetoric, the primary role of Syrian forces was to crush the PLO and its leftist allies in the Lebanese National Movement (LNM). His allies in this project were the fascist right in Lebanon, the Israeli government, and the US state department. To fully understand the motivations for this disgraceful alliance, it is necessary to know something about the situation in Lebanon.
The French designed Lebanon to be a country perpetually ripe for civil war. They carved out of Syria a territory with a slim majority of Maronite Christians, which they hoped would be a dependent and loyal client. In achieving independence a “National Pact” was made which enshrined a sectarian state on the basis of confessional representation: the President must be a Maronite, the Prime Minister a Sunni, the Speaker a Shi’ite, and so on. Issues surrounding this sectarian formula have shaped much of Lebanon’s history. Further heightening the potential for sectarian conflict has been the socio-economic gulf between the religious groups. Though things have changed more recently, traditionally Christians were at the top of the economic ladder and Shi’ites at the bottom. Periodically these tensions overflow into open struggle such as in 1958, when forces aligned with Egypt and Syria rose up against a pro-Western President. As has become typical for Lebanon, a compromise was reached and the sectarian status quo was preserved to the benefit of elites on all sides. Yet by not resolving underlying grievances over the confessional system and economic inequality, the timid policies of subsequent unity governments paved the way for the coming civil war.
The Palestinian presence in Lebanon grafted the complex issues of the Arab-Israeli conflict onto an already strained domestic environment. Foreign policy had always been a source of conflict in Lebanon. The National Pact of 1943 specifically enshrined Lebanon’s independence from Syria and other Arab states, and also forbade Christians from seeking Western support or funding. This “double negation agreement” represented a balancing act between the pan-Arab desires of the Muslim and progressive factions against those of the pro-Western Christians. In reality it would be impossible to maintain this neutrality. After the defeat of the Arab armies in 1967, Palestinian resistance groups increasingly took it upon themselves to engage in direct military confrontations with Israel. Israel’s responses were increasingly brutal. This vicious cycle angered the Lebanese establishment, which sought to curtail Palestinian activity in the Cairo Accord of 1969. Designed to limit Palestinian organisational and military activity to the south of Lebanon, the Accord remained a dead letter and a testament to the perpetual weakness of the Lebanese state. Attacks on Israel by the PLO continued, prompting Israeli retaliation that served to magnify anti-Palestinian sentiments among (mostly Maronite) right wing parties such as the fascist Kataeb.
The late 1960s also saw a sharp rise in working class militancy and mass student protests which fuelled the growth of the radical left. Clashes between the PLO and Christian militias became increasingly common as far right parties demanded the expulsion of the Palestinian militias. In April 1975 these skirmishes turned into an all-out war, after the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine made a failed assassination attempt on the leader of the fascists. The Kataeb responded by firing on a busload of Palestinian civilians, killing 27. Street battles exploded throughout Beirut and the war was on.
Two distinct camps coalesced and more or less held together through the wartime chaos. On one side stood a bloc of conservative Christian patriarchs allied to the West. Led by Pierre Jumayyil, leader of the Kataeb party, this side stressed the racially and culturally “Phoenician” character of Lebanon in opposition to the Arab and Muslim nations surrounding it. They were fighting to preserve the sectarian state system, their socio-economic privileges, and the geopolitical status quo. The opposition – grouped around the Lebanese National Movement – was a loose alliance of Druze, Shia, Sunni and non-sectarian parties of the left, grouped under the leadership of the eclectic nationalist Kamal Jumblatt. It was cohered around opposition to confessionalism – understood as Christian dominance – but also took up issues of wealth redistribution, Arabism and anti-Zionism in order to gain a mass appeal. Restrained by the existing system and under siege from the extra-parliamentary Christian militias, the PLO was naturally drawn to such a movement, providing firepower and political legitimacy to the opposition.
Within months the radicals were on the cusp of a total victory. The first phase of the war saw the left achieve crushing victories across the country. Territory under their control encompassed the PLO/LNM strongholds in the south, the mountains surrounding Beirut, and the Sunni North. Even the Bekaa valley, with its significant Christian population, was at risk.
Syrian forces have always had a powerful influence in Lebanese politics. This goes back to the Ottoman empire, when the two nations were part of the same administrative bloc that also included Jordan and much of Palestine. Even after the creation of Lebanon in 1920, Syrian elites insisted on their historic connections and regularly intervened in its internal affairs. This pattern continued through the period of Assad’s rule, right through to today. Of course, this has not been motivated by a nostalgia for Arab unity, but by geostrategic advantages of the weaker state: an abundant water supply, multiple Mediterranean ports, strong financial institutions and a long and relatively porous border with Israel.
The success of the left in the early days of the Lebanese civil war caused Assad much angst. Though Syria had continued to provide military support to the Palestinian militias and the LNM throughout 1975, the tensions between them sharpened as he urged caution:
A decisive military action [by Jumblatt]…would open doors to every foreign intervention, particularly Israel’s intervention. Let us visualise the magnitude of the tragedy which might ensue if Israel were to intervene to save some Arabs [Maronites] from other Arabs [LNM].
Tantalisingly close to becoming the first non-Christian leader of a reformed Lebanon, Jumblatt was in no mood to compromise. Indeed he countered Assad’s call for negotiations with an announcement of a “total and irreversible military campaign” against the Maronites. He was to pay for this intransigence with his life; assassinated by the Syrians in 1977. The Palestinians during this period also refused to accept a negotiated settlement. Confident that Assad “would not let a Syrian rifle shoot the Palestinian masses” Arafat reaffirmed his alliance with the LNM and pressed ahead.
Frightened by the prospect of instability on his western flank, Assad moved to occupy Lebanon in order to crush the left and restore order. Like any self-respecting member of the capitalist class, Assad feared the prospect of revolutionary social change more than anything else. So when the LNM spoke of democracy, Assad saw political unpredictability. Where the Palestinians saw liberated zones from which to mount attacks on Israel, Assad saw excuses for Israeli invasions. Where the left advocated some economic and political restructuring of Lebanese society in favour of the poor, Assad worried that his population might get similar ideas. So Assad proceeded to crush the Palestinians, tame the left, and preserve the status quo.
Initially fearful of provoking an Israeli retaliation, Assad preferred to use units from the Syrian-controlled Palestinian Liberation Army and Saiqa militias to do his dirty work. But as the conflict deepened the entire army was drawn in. The goals were clear from the outset. He sought to fortify the Maronites, crush the Palestinian militias and impose a compromise on a weakened opposition. This required extreme brutality. The high point saw Syrian fighters collaborating with Christian militias in the massacre of around 2,000 Palestinians in the Tal al-Za’tar refugee camp. Yet Assad still continued to rationalise his actions as preventative or defensive manoeuvres against Israeli aggression, claiming that “a great conspiracy is being hatched against the Arab nation… Our brothers in the Palestinian leadership…are its prime targets”. Elsewhere he argued that “we had no choice…but to intervene directly…and save the [Palestinian] resistance”. Though resistance by the LNM and the left wing Palestinian militias (such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) was fierce they could not defeat Syria’s well-equipped army, especially after Arafat struck a deal with Assad and pulled his key forces out of the fighting. The intervention decisively shifted the balance of forces in favour of those defending the established confessional system.
Not only did Syria’s occupation of Lebanon signal a decisive break with the PLO and the LNM, it resulted in direct collaboration with Israel. This took the form of the infamous “red line agreement” between Syria, Israel and the US. All parties agreed on the need to defend Maronite privilege, and Kissinger was able to convince the Israelis that the Syrians were in the best position to do so. Happy to have US support, Assad was willing to accept Israeli conditions – notably that the Litani river was a “red line” below which Syrian troops could not venture.
The Lebanese civil war continued for another 14 years after these events. Syria would change sides many times, and eventually clashed directly with the Israelis who invaded in 1982. Generally speaking, Assad’s strategy was to ally himself with whomever the fortunes of war favoured least at any particular moment in order to maintain the balance of power. Not only was social transformation blocked, but sectarianism would be entrenched for generations and the PLO forced out of the country. Assad had achieved his goals, ensuring Syria’s status as the kingmaker of Lebanese politics.
Assad and Sadat – same principles, divergent realities
Supporters of the Syrian regime who maintain some grasp on reality are sometimes prepared to acknowledge that Syria has provided limited and inconsistent opposition to the US and Israel. But they point to the fate of the Egyptian regime, claiming that some resistance is better than none. Given that the US has for years insisted that the Ba’athists remain in power in Syria, an easy reply is to say that this so-called resistance cannot be very meaningful. However it is useful to explain why it is that the rhetorical posture and geopolitical alignment of the Syrian regime has remained somewhat oppositional to Western imperialism.
It’s helpful to begin by identifying how and why the Egyptian military was able to transition so successfully from Nasser’s anti-Zionism to the peace deal of 1979. Sadat enjoyed a series of advantages resulting from Egypt’s premier position in the Arab world. As leader of the state with the largest population and a sizable military, Sadat had significant diplomatic leverage. So in return for a peace treaty he was able to negotiate the full return of the Sinai Desert, occupied by Israel following the October War. Egypt was also able to forge extremely close bilateral ties with the US government and its Saudi proxies, which resulted in enormous amounts of military and economic aid from 1974. This allowed Sadat to ameliorate the worst aspects of the neoliberalisation of the economy in the critical early phase of the transition. At an ideological level Sadat was able to draw on pre-Arab Egyptian history to reorient Egyptian nationalism in an isolationist direction. This was symbolised by changing the national flag to replace the two stars that represented unity with Syria with the Pharaonic eagle. Finally Sadat made a largely successful attempt to buy off the largest source of opposition to the military regime, the lslamists. This was done by enhancing the status of Al Azhar – the main Islamic university in Egypt – as well as some shifts towards a sharia-inspired legal framework. Sadat himself adopted a more religious public demeanour, publicly praying and adopting more Islamist-style rhetoric. Despite this turn towards God Sadat was assassinated by one of the more radical Islamist groups that had resisted his overtures. Few shed any tears.
The Syrian regime lacked all of these resources. The Syrians were far from being a military power, and the Golan Heights were both more strategic and easier for Israel to defend than the Sinai Desert. From the Israeli and the American perspective these factors made negotiations redundant, and they ignored the many conciliatory gestures that Assad sent in their direction. This made an ongoing alliance with Russia, and later Iran, absolutely necessary for the survival of the regime.
Syria also suffered from its status as a state with few historic roots. Comprised as it was of a series of previously autonomous provinces, the Ba’athists inherited a nation in name only. Syrian nationalism has always been relatively weak, its identity fundamentally bound up in its relations with the broader Arab community and therefore to the struggle for Palestine. This made it politically difficult to openly abandon the struggle against Zionism.
The anti-imperialist posture of the regime was also crucial in combating the growing Sunni Islamist opposition through the late 1970s and early 80s. Although Assad genuflected towards Islamic principles, as the head of a sectarian Alawite government there was an obvious limit on his ability to relate to the largely Sunni population on a religious basis. One response was to emphasise the undeniably sectarian nature of the Islamist opposition and the need for a strong state to protect the minorities. But when the government wanted to justify its mass slaughter of the Muslim Brotherhood they also claimed that the Brotherhood were a pro-Zionist and Western-backed organisation.
The final factor that made it difficult to follow Sadat towards open capitulation was the pressure from its regional rivals, especially Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Apart from a brief period of détente in 1979, when the two regimes united against Sadat’s deal with Israel, the Syrian and Iraqi Ba’ath were at loggerheads. Cynically benefiting from his strategic distance from Israel, Saddam repeatedly attacked Syria for its failure to confront the Zionist state – even though he never helped in any meaningful way.
Treated with hostility and indifference by Israel and the US, trying to maintain control over a divided nation, and cynically pressed by his regional rivals, Assad therefore had no capacity or incentive to publicly break with Arab nationalism and the idea of “resistance”. This pragmatic decision to maintain an oppositional discourse and geopolitical alignment should not be confused with genuine solidarity for the Palestinians or anyone else. As Hafez al-Assad explained to Henry Kissinger, “the Syrian difficulty is that people here who have been nurtured for twenty-six years on hatred [of Israel], can’t be swayed overnight by our changing courses”.
Events such as the Syrian revolution are important tests for the left internationally. While they cannot be the only factor in determining our program and tactics, the ability to recognise and support popular revolutions is a crucial characteristic of a principled socialist movement. From this perspective, the history contained in this article should be superfluous. Unfortunately the ghost of Stalinism continues to haunt the left. So hopefully the facts and arguments in this piece can be useful in responding to pro-regime propaganda.
In the meantime, the heroes of Aleppo and other revolutionary towns in Syria continue to fight for freedom, confronting Russian bombs and Western indifference. Win or lose, they will never be forgotten.
Drysdale, A. and R. Hinnebusch 1991, Syria and the Middle East Peace Process, Council on Foreign Relations.
van Dusen, Matthew 1972, “Political Integration and Regionalism in Syria”, Middle East Journal, 26.
Ma’oz, Moshe 1986, “The Emergence of Modern Syria”, in M. Ma’oz and A. Yaniv (eds), Syria Under Assad: Domestic Constraints and Regional Risks, Croom Helm.
Nasr, Vali 2012, “What Syria’s Power Struggle Means”, Council on Foreign Relations, November, http://www.cfr.org/syria/syrias-power-struggle-means/p28432.
O’Donnell, Guillermo 1977, “Corporatism and the Question of the State”, in J. Malloy (ed.), Authoritarianism and Corporatism in Latin America, University of Pittsburgh Press.
USA International Development 2011, Custom Country Report: Egypt: Total Economic and Military Assistance, http://gbk.eads.usaidallnet.gov.
Yassin-Kassab, Robin and Leila Al-Shami 2016, Burning Country. Syrians in Revolution and War, Pluto Press.
 Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami 2016.
 Hinnebusch 1993, p245.
 Hinnebusch 1993, p4.
 Ma’oz 1988, pp14-15.
 Hinnebusch 1993, p244.
 Dam 1996, p5. For more see Ma’oz 1973, p29.
 Beinin 2001, pp114-132.
 Batatu 2004, p900.
 Dusen 1972.
 George 2003, p68.
 Aulas 1988, p137; for more on this in the Syrian context see Halpern 1970, pp51-78. For a more general theoretical account of the social, cultural and political characteristics of the middle classes nothing surpasses Draper 1978.
 Ayubi 1996, pp196-203.
 Beinin 2001, p13-20.
 Ayubi 1996 pp205-206. For a discussion of the Egyptian equivalent see Alexander 2006.
 Rabinovich 1972.
 Hinnebusch 1990, pp134-5.
 Ma’oz 1988, p37.
 Olson 1982, p115.
 Beinin 2001, p136; Ayubi 1996, p217.
 Leca 1988, p190; Hinnebusch 1990, pp144-145.
 For more information about this period see Kerr 1973.
 Leca 1988, pp183-192.
 Perthes 1998, p110.
 Hinnebusch 1993, p252.
 Batatu 1999, p208. In the context of the current revolution see Nasr 2012.
 Perthes 1998, p142.
 Leca 1988, p150.
 Ayubi 1988, p134.
 Ayubi 1996, p357.
 Seale 1990, p171.
 O’Donnell 1977, p68.
 Oakley 2011, p39.
 Ayubi 1996, p189.
 O’Donnell 1977, p49.
 Firro 1986, p44.
 Perthes 1998, pp42-45.
 Perthes 1998, p34.
 Firro 1986, p62.
 Perthes 1998, p109.
 Perthes 1998, p108.
 Perthes 1998, p117.
 Perthes 1998, p105.
 George 2003, pp165-166.
 Ayubi 1996, p217.
 Hinnebusch, R. 1990, p. 135.
 Talhami, G. H. 2001, pp. 78-79, 86.
 Ma’oz 1988, p37.
 Olson 1982, p115; Ajami 1976; Kerr 1973, pp695-697.
 Seale 1990, p348.
 Seale 1990, p147.
 Drysdale and Hinnebusch 1991, pp105-106.
 The Insight Team 1974, p73.
 Seale 1990, p197.
 Sela 1998, p141.
 The Insight Team 1974, p488.
 Seale 1990, pp221-224.
 Seale 1990, pp250-252.
 Petran 1989, pp28-32.
 Chamie 1976, pp178-180. A word of caution: it was never the case that all Christians were wealthy, or all Muslims poor, and wealthy Christians often helped form and lead progressive parties.
Krayem 1997, p412.
 Chamie 1976, p173; Qubain 1961, pp170-171.
 Fisk 1990, pp74-75.
 Rabil 2003, p49.
 Rabil 2003, pp46-50.
 Salibi 1990, pp19-37.
 Salibi 1990, p105.
 Khalidi 1979, p55.
 Avi-Ran 1991.
 Dawisha 1980, p109.
 Talhami 2001, p115.
 Dawisha 1980, pp102-106; Olson 1982, pp152-153.
 Seale 1990, p283.
 Ma’oz 1988, p127.
 Rabil 2003, p52.
 Patrick Reevell, “US Not Seeking ‘Regime Change’ in Syria, John Kerry Says After Meeting With Russian President”, http://abcnews.go.com/International/john-kerry-meets-russian-president-vladimir-putin-seek/story?id=35782171, 15 December 2015.
 USA International Development 2011.
 Aulas 1988, p148. This shift drew on pre-existing isolationist tendencies within Egypt; for more on this see Gershoni and Janjokowski 1986.
 Ma’oz 1986, p12-17; Hinnebusch 1990, p304.
 Dam 1996, p95.
 Hinnebusch 1990, p298.
 Kissinger 1982, p1087.